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Filing for divorce initiates the divorce process, which then progresses according to a series of steps and procedures. The information here outlines the procedures which are fairly standard and universal, but you should also be aware that the steps involved are highly dependant upon the nature of your divorce (whether it’s civil or uncivil) and whether various aspects are contested by your partner. If the two of you are cooperating and are committed to a civil divorce, then you can breeze through each of these stages informally, and thus most of the formal “steps” outlined here are rendered irrelevant. Even still, you should read through this information to get a good understanding of what is involved.

Also be aware that since there is a patchwork of state laws governing divorce, each state’s individual process may have details that vary slightly from what is outlined here.

Step 1: Initiating the process by petitioning for divorce

In order to begin the process of divorce, petitioners must file what is called a “letter of complaint” or “original petition for divorce.” These are essentially the same documents under a different name, and will request that the court initiate the process to grant a divorce. This is filed with your local court clerk, and forms can usually be accessed online. This form requests information about …

  • The parties involved and any children they have between them.
  • Any relief the party filing for divorce feels that they are due.
  • A reason for the divorce (in most jurisdictions, this is simply “irreconcilable differences” or “incompatibility”).

The application for divorce can be made by either party or by both parties jointly. If one person is filing for the divorce, he or she will be labeled the “petitioner” in court documents, while the other person is referred to as the “respondent.” Unless the divorce is being filed jointly, the petitioner must then serve the papers to the respondent, usually by way of having a local sheriff’s deputy deliver them. (This is done for a small fee.) If the other person is cooperating, they may also bring the papers directly to get a signed copy.

Step 2: Response & temporary orders

After the respondent has been served, he or she has 30 days to respond to the original petition and hire an attorney if necessary. It is also during this time that either party may seek restraining orders, protective orders, or temporary relief orders.

Temporary orders are issued by the court to provide immediate injunctions until the case can be argued thoroughly in front of a judge (or is otherwise resolved). Such orders will stay in place until the final divorce hearing or filing, and can include things like temporary child support or spousal support, child custody arrangements, or temporary injunctions against contact with the children or removal of property. Failure to follow these orders will result in the offending party being found in contempt of court. Not only can this mean fines or jail time, but it won’t earn you favor with the judge, so be sure to comply, no matter how unfair or draconian these measures may seem. And if you’re the petitioner, don’t use these legal tools as a means to get back at your spouse, especially when it comes to child custody issues. Falsely crying wolf to bar your ex from the kids is a type of abusive parental interference that may lead to you losing custody down the road.

Step 3: The divorce discovery

Next is what is referred to as “discovery,” which is a legal process by which each party gathers necessary information related to the divorce.

What’s contained in a divorce discovery?

There are generally 5 different steps (or aspects) to the divorce discovery process:

  • Disclosures: Each party and/or their attorneys request certain items or documentation from the other party. The other person then has 30 days to respond to these requests.
  • Interrogatories: This is a list of questions that the attorneys send to the other party, who must then respond within 30 days. Some states may set limits on the amount or nature of questions asked.
  • Admissions of fact: This is essentially a process used to determine areas of dispute or contention. Each party submits a list of facts to the other party, who then acknowledges or disputes each listed fact.
  • Requests for production: Essentially a type of subpoena order, this is a legal tool that is used to obtain bank statements, email records, or any other document a lawyer feels will help his or her client. The party who receives the request (an employer, a bank, the former spouse, etc.) is supposed to respond within 30 days to produce that documentation. But since parties often fail to respond or delay in responding as a stall tactic, this part of the process can drag out the divorce and prevent a swift resolution.
  • Depositions: Sometimes attorneys may take depositions, during which time they take sworn testimony from the opposing party and/or any witnesses that may be involved. Any statement made during a deposition can then be used in court should you not be able to reach a settlement out of court.

Step 4: Negotiations & mediation

After the discovery process has taken place and each side has the information needed to proceed, then the process to work out the details and finalize the divorce will take place. There are several methods by which this occurs, such as mediation, collaboration, or arbitration. (These will be discussed at length in the next chapter, Types of Divorce.) If the couple is unable to work out an agreement, then the case goes to court to be settled by a judge.

Step 5: Finalizing the divorce

Once an arrangement is reached, whether it be through the parties agreeing on terms or by a judge issuing a ruling in the case, then papers are filed in court and a final decree of divorce is issued, officially dissolving the marriage. The final decree outlines how marital property will be divided and enacts any orders pertaining to child custody, child support, or spousal maintenance.

Step 6: Appeals and enforcement

If either party is unhappy with a court-ordered decision, they can file an appeal. This appeal goes to the same judge who decided your case, and as you might imagine, judges are not likely to reverse their own orders, and are almost certain to deny your motion. Once this happens, you can then file an appeal with the state appellate court, where you have a better (though still not good) chance of having your grievances heard. You may be able to seek temporary injunctions during this time, but these can be as hard to get as appeals.

If the other party is not complying with the agreement, then you’ll need to take them back to court to have these issues enforced. Local police will get involved over child custody orders only, and do not enforce child support or other requirements without a judge issuing a warrant for noncompliance. This is why contentious divorce cases can often drag on for some years.

If all of this sounds like a monumental headache rather than your idea of fun, it’s because it is. For this reason couples should do everything possible to circumvent this mess and work out issues among themselves.

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